'We are tired of running back and forth between the two countries'
“I want to go back,” said 12-year-old Hujjatul Islam as he gazed across a narrow muddy field surrounded by numerous makeshift shacks at Kutpalang-Balukhali Extension Camp.
“I was a class three student at a Rohingya-run school in Rakhine state. But here [in Bangladesh], I have no educational opportunities,” he said.
Hujjatul, who is from Rakhine’s Chindiprang village, does not know when, or if, he will be able to return home. “First, Myanmar must recognize us as citizens,” he said.
“Myanmar does not accept us as Rohingyas. I fled to Bangladesh with my family members during last year's Eid ul-Azha when the army attacked. Now we will not go back until our demand is fulfilled,” he said.
Most of the Rohingyas have demanded Myanmar recognize their ethnic identity as a condition for repatriation. Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognize the mainly-Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled persecution in Rakhine State and sought shelter in Bangladesh. More than 700,000 Rohingyas have come to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the minority in August last year.
They joined more than 400,000 others who were already living squalid, cramped camps in Cox’s Bazar.
With the repatriation process in limbo, Rohingya leaders and youths have been arranging secret meetings in the refugee camps to rally support for their recognition demands.
‘Tired of running’
Hazera Khatun, a resident of Jamtoli camp, told the Dhaka Tribune: “I will not go back to Rakhine. There are no facilities there for us. Here, Bangladesh and different agencies treat us very well. Am I such a fool as to leave this place and go back to hell?”
The sentiment is strong among the refugees but the Hindu Rohingyas say they are ready to go back without conditions.
Rohingya leader Jafor Alam said their people hope to return home with dignity and security. He urged recognition of their ethnic identity and repatriation under the supervision of the UN.
Abdul Majed, who lives in Barmapara camp, said they will return only if Myanmar acknowledges their Rohingya identity. “We don't feel good about living in another country like beggars,” he said.
The Rohingyas are referred to as ‘Bangalis’ by Myanmar—a term used to imply that they are illegal Bangladeshi migrants. State-sponsored discrimination against the minority stretches back decades.
“I would rather die a Muslim in Bangladesh than going back to Rakhine without my Rohingya identity,” said Rohingya youth Khaleq, who comes from Maungdaw’s Bolibazar area.
Bangladesh signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar on November 23 last year. A joint working group is working on implementing the process.
Octogenarian Abdur Rashid said he fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine State four times.
“I want to go back to my birthplace,” he said. “But I do not want to run again to save my life. I fled Myanmar in: 1991, 2000, 2012, and 2017. We are tired of running back and forth between the two countries.”
The long wait
Though Rohingyas are unwilling to return home without recognition of their ethnic identity, they have become bored of their camp life. They say they always miss their homes.
The displaced Myanmar nationals say they are not sure how long it will take for Myanmar to accept their demands and complete repatriation. Some of the refugees, who are frustrated with the slow pace of repatriation, said Myanmar is toying with them.
They expressed gratitude to Bangladesh and its people for hosting them.
Rohingya Leader Abu Hares, who lives in Kutupalong camp, said: “Bangladeshis are sacrificing a lot for us. We will never forget it.”
“From the camp, we can see the hills near our villages and the paddy fields. Our hearts always cry for our homes. We want to go back but cannot because we fear for our lives,” said Honufa Begum, who comes from Rakhine’s Hatipara village.
Honufa, currently living in Moynarghona camp, said she shows the hills in the distance to her three little children and tells them stories about Rakhine.
Dil Mohammad, 55, who has been living in the no man’s land along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since August 25 last year, said he lost his homestead at Maungdaw during last year’s violence.
“We never imagined that we would have to abandon everything and leave our homeland. The Myanmar army destroyed our properties in just one night,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Abdur Rahim, who arrived in Bangladesh at the age of 17, in 1991, said: “I have heard many stories from my parents about Myanmar. My roots are in Rakhine State, and I want to go and settle there someday. Here, we are seen as refugees, but I cannot accept this identity.”
For Al-Amin, who owned land and a house in Muangdaw’s Panipara village, this is his third displacement.
The first was in 1978, when he was still a child and had to spend a year at a refugee camp in Bangladesh after escaping persecution. Then, in 1992, he was forced to flee for a second time and ended up living as a refugee for eight years.
And the third was last year, on August 27, when he and his family fled a Myanmar army crackdown in Rakhine state; one which the UN said amounted to ethnic cleansing.
“When we first arrived, we thought we would be able to go back home after a few days. One year has passed, and no solution is in sight. The UN and international communities have failed to solve this problem,” he said.